The table has been set at Christie’s, where the fabled dining room of philanthropist, designer, and publisher Ann Getty has been sumptuously re-created. Through October 25, the contents of her home, including 1,500 fine and decorative artworks and her exquisite tabletop collection, will be offered in a series of sales at the auction house to benefit the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation for the Arts.
It’s a collection that is “reminiscent of the Gilded Age,” says Ricky Trabucco, who runs Home at Last, an interior-design business in New York City. “Tables groaning with countless silver utensils, piles of bone china, and clusters of crystal stemware lend themselves to a bygone era … When a table is laid so extravagantly, it seems the food would, if not ruin it, at least partially obscure its intended opulence. This is far more form than function. But a sale like this is never about need. It’s about owning a piece of the history of fabulousness.”
Ann Getty’s early life unspools like a movie directed by Howard Hawks, scripted by the novelist Dawn Powell. Ann Gilbert grew up middle class on a pecan-and-walnut farm in California’s Central Valley and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in anthropology and biology. (She even assisted the famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Africa.) But what changed the trajectory of her life was working at the cosmetics counter at the Joseph Magnin Co. department store, in San Francisco. It was there, among the lipsticks and powders, that she met Barbara Newsom, who introduced her to Gordon Getty, a friend of her brother’s.
“A sale like this is never about need. It’s about owning a piece of the history of fabulousness.”
Gordon was the fourth child of J. Paul Getty, the notoriously cranky, skinflint founder of Getty Oil, who was once regarded as the richest man in the world. Gordon studied literature and music, becoming a classical composer. After his father’s death, in 1976, Gordon became sole trustee of the family’s $4.1 billion fortune. Ann and Gordon first met in 1964 at a bar in North Beach, where Gordon, it’s said, challenged Ann to “match him shot for shot.” She did, and they soon eloped to Las Vegas, where they were married on Christmas Day.
Ann quickly became a San Francisco cultural doyenne, generously donating to the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Leakey Foundation, among many other august institutions. In the mid-1980s, Ann leapfrogged into New York City, where she ascended to the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and New York University. What Truman Capote famously remarked about Babe Paley, one of his swanning socialites, could also be said about Ann Getty: “She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.”
But she was much more than a socialite. While Gordon Getty was busy composing music and managing the family fortune, Ann joined forces with the British publisher George Weidenfeld, in 1985, to rescue the avant-garde publishing house Grove Press. Grove had been the first to publish Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean Genet, and banned books such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It was not a publishing house for prudes. If Ann was a socialite, she didn’t mind publishing socialists, such as Frantz Fanon, who wrote The Wretched of the Earth. And, you might say, she fulfilled the legendary designer Billy Baldwin’s dictum that “the best decoration in the world is a roomful of books.”
But it was as a designer with a unique and historically informed eye that Ann Getty truly came into her own. “I love the hunt,” she admitted, “and I especially love finding something exquisite, moving, rare, unexpected and rich with history.” Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s, describes the Getty drawing room as “evok[ing] a London house of 1912, opulent and glamorous with giltwood furniture and Impressionist paintings. Provenances evoking long-lost houses and collections, Daisy Fellowes, Elvaston Castle, Spencer House, Grimsthorpe, Badminton, Nelson Rockefeller, Napoleon … all together looking out at the bay.”
Christie’s describes the impending sale as “one of the most important collections of fine and decorative arts in the last fifty years.” It’s perhaps ironic that Ann suffered a heart attack during a family dinner at home in San Francisco, surrounded by her beautiful objects, then died in a hospital on September 14, 2020.
The Christie’s exhibition opened to the public on October 10. Rendell describes the chinoiserie-paneled dining room as “the heart of the Getty House,” and Ann’s tabletop pieces, such as pagoda candlesticks and forks festooned with silver dragons, Rendell notes, are “wit and glamour personified.”
Much of Ann Getty’s exquisite tableware is ripe for acquisition: her 1810 Spode pearlware dessert service, adorned with green and brown grapevines; her agate-engraved Victorian silver flatware; and her 20th-century Le Tallec porcelain plates, adorned with wreaths of oak leaves. But those who place the winning bids may not want to bespoil it with something as ordinary as food.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends